There’s a story to Dragon’s Dogma, but the game seemed to forget that an hour or so in, in my experience. It involves your created "Arisen" getting his or her heart ripped out by a giant dragon. To be honest, it really doesn’t matter what happens to the Arisen’s heart, because Dragon’s Dogma knows exactly where its own heart is. Dragon’s Dogma’s heart is in its combat.
Perhaps it’s due to the guidance of Devil May Cry 3’s Hideaki Itsuno, but Dragon’s Dogma has Devil May Cry DNA. Despite the obvious changes a genre shift brings with it, Dragon’s Dogma still manages to combine the strengths of an action game with a western RPG blueprint, making for a WRPG with a strong combat focus.
As you fight, you’re rewarded with "discipline points." These allow you to buy new skills at inns, much like "red orbs" in every action game released since Devil May Cry, but invisible. The skills you can buy range from simple attacks, like the fighter’s rushing "Blink Strike" and its improved variations (think Devil May Cry’s Stinger), to more passive abilities like the Strider’s double-jump, to various augments like the Assassin’s improved damage at night. Because you need to fight to earn new abilities, gaining more powerful attacks starts to overshadow leveling up as the goal of grinding. I constantly found myself toying with different builds and seeing if I could get certain abilities to chain into each other, just as I did when I played Devil May Cry 3 and Devil May Cry 4.
While generally the idea of having a ton of skills in WRPGs made me worry that I would spend a lot of time in pop-up menus and in the waiting for abilities to warm up and cool down, Dragon’s Dogma works around that by limiting the number of skills you can have at once. Each class has specific main and sub-weapons that they can use. Each type of weapon your Arisen can equip is limited to three abilities, used by holding the bumper it’s assigned to (LB/L1 for subweapons, RB/R1 for main) and pressing X, Y, or B (or Square, Triangle, or Circle).
It seems a bit limited at first, but six skills make for some pretty entertaining combat, especially when some of the weirder techniques enter the mix, like the Strider’s animation-cancelling "Reset" skill.
While I didn’t spend much time as a mage, the close-range abilities I used were practically instantaneous. I could transition straight from the animation of a standard attack into one of my skills without delay. Ranged skills require a bit more prep time, but waiting a second or two to fire an arrow that sends an enemy hurtling through the air is worth it. The combat isn’t quite Devil May Cry, but it’s the closest I’ve experienced within this genre.
Despite how much fun fighting can be, it takes a couple of battles to adapt. There’s no lock-on, no dodge roll, and until you’ve gained a few special abilities, battles with standard enemies like goblins, wolves, and thieves alternate between being dull or—if there’s a lot of them or they’re above your level—overwhelming. Fortunately, the game tosses a few large enemies at you early on so you can get a taste for felling things that are multiple times your size.
Big enemies are your combination of jungle-gyms, puzzles and swift and painful death. I should clarify that I mean this in the most positive way possible. Whenever I stumbled into a new creature, I was struck by a combination of excitement and fear. The fear came from the size and motion of these big creatures, and the excitement came from the fact that I was going to get a chance to climb all over the thing, trying to figure out what its weakness was. Climbing on enemies is lots of fun because they’ll surprise you with the ways that they try to remove you from their body. Ogres in particular amuse me, because if you stay on their back, they’ll just flop backwards to smash you.
As enjoyable as these fights are, if you’re not careful about saving frequently, they can set your progress back quite a ways in just a few seconds. These things are as powerful as their size would convey, and they don’t hesitate to pick you up and take a bite out of you. Naturally, you can’t take these creatures on alone, and this is where Pawns come in.
Pawns are essentially your party. However, only the one you build levels up, and the others are essentially hired guns. Your Main Pawn is completely under your control, the way they look, the way they talk (not simply voice, but demeanor), and the way they fight. When you’re at inns customizing your skill layout with discipline points, you can customize the three skills per-weapon for your Pawn as well. Aside from the fact that it’s just helpful to have a well-equipped Pawn, the more you’ve explored with them and the more they learn, the more helpful they’ll be if someone else recruits them as a Support Pawn.
Support Pawns don’t level up, but instead remain at whatever level you first hire them at (if they’re your level or below, it doesn’t cost anything to hire them). This means that as you level up, you’ll constantly be grabbing new Pawns to match your level or give yourself a party better-suited to the situation at hand. Hiring a Pawn who’s a higher level than you costs you "rift crystals," which are gained by people hiring your Pawn, but it can be helpful if the game keeps killing you at your current level. The fact that you can revive pawns whenever they die is handy too. That said, your Pawns will never stop talking. I personally turned off their banter subtitles, so that they weren’t always popping up.
While Dragon’s Dogma is centered around its combat, I feel like it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t talk about the exploration at all. At first, I wasn’t too pleased by the fact that I was assigned quests in places I hadn’t visited or even heard of. Couple that with the fact that it’s to find your way into a place where the enemies are beyond your capabilities, and exploration seems very intimidating at first. However, once I settled into a character class that I was really happy with (Assassin, for the
record) and made peace with the fact that I might have to run for my life at a moment’s notice, I started embracing the exploration.
Dragon’s Dogma adds a mystique to exploration simply by making darkness… dark. Run out of oil in your lantern at night or in a cave, and you’ll barely be able to see what’s about to tear your face off. Even with a light, I’ve had a giant cyclops emerge from the darkness and surprise me. Exploration in the day is of fun, and generally prettier, but night makes things feel dangerous. I’ve wandered through misty woods only to find that what I thought was fire were ghosts that could only be destroyed with magic. I killed an entire bandit stronghold just to get a magic book. While I generally don’t like aimless wandering, I enjoyed myself in Dragon’s Dogma.
Food for Thought:
1. The character customization is really in-depth. I’ve never been able to adjust a character’s posture before.
2. It’s always annoyed me when you get to a point in the game that certain quests are unfinishable, which this game has. However, my annoyance with the un-finishable quests sort of dissipated after I took on like 20 more from the various message boards populating the city.
3. I love how the music on the opening screen transitions from orchestral to Japanese pop band, B’z, in about a minute. This is their theme song for the game: